Applying to Grad School

Masdar Institute
Masdar Institute (Photo credit: Michael Keith Photography)

So you decide to apply to grad school – maybe you think research is the best thing to do, need more time to make up your mind or see it as the way to reach greener pastures. Oh, maybe your dream is to invent cars that run on water…

This post is for you then! There are many advantages (and disadvantages too) of grad school: you meet awesome people, broaden your scope and improve your analytic skills. However, the process of applying to grad school is long, demanding and at times frustrating.

Here are a couple of tips on the process: most of the suggestions are based on my  experience and things I have learnt about the workings of the grad school system.


1. Boost your credentials

There is fierce competition for positions in top schools so you need to stand out. Diligently acquire all the skills that will give you an edge: research experience, coding skills, work experience and writing skills etc.  Make the most of your time: your holidays (both official and unofficial à la ASUU style) and cut frivolous activities.

This is also the time to build your academic credentials; make sure you get high grades and understand course content properly. Cultivating good relationships with lecturers is also essential as they’re going to provide recommendations for you.

Now don’t go seeking recommendations from the lecturer who taught 10000 students like you an elective course. It’ll be best to go for people who taught you and know you well. For example, your research supervisor, your course advisor or your favourite lecturer. You’ll most probably never see the recommendations they write, so make sure you are in their good books or you might be shooting yourself in the foot…

One last thing, if you need to write exams, then it is also essential to start looking for funds – the exams are quite expensive and if you have to save towards them, then the earlier the better.

Summary: Work on your CGPA, get funds and cultivate great relationships.

2. Identify your research interests

Identifying a research field of interest is quite difficult because you have to know what you love doing. This takes some time, so do extensive soul-searching and find out what stimulates your curiosity. Identify your passions: do you spend endless hours trying to solve a particular problem? Do you say to yourself: ‘I’ll do just one more fix and that’s all’ and yet spend 6 extra hours on a particular problem? If yes, then that field is probably a good research area for you.

A couple of tips include identifying what courses you enjoyed in undergrad, reviewing the various research areas in your field and asking older people for help.

Summary: Discuss with mentors, carry out independent findings and find out what areas of your field piqué your interest.


3. Research your proposed Institutions

Create a ranking of the institutions you’ll like to study at. Know the merits and demerits of each institution, ongoing research and collaborations, career prospects after graduation, student life, study facilities and learning environment.

Reach out to the lecturers at these institutions, discuss your research interests and study goals with them. Some schools actually encourage this; however if you get no responses, don’t give up hope but continue striving.

Make sure your interests match ongoing research in your target institutions. Looking for a computer engineering position in a machine learning research lab is just as efficient as fetching water with a basket.

4. Take the exams

Most graduate institutions require some exams – TOEFL, GRE, GMAT or IELTS. Make sure you prepare for them thoroughly, it’s always best to ace exams at the first go so leave no stone unturned!

One of my friends actually made a good suggestion – he said he’ll only consider himself ready if he could solve all the practice GRE quantitative questions in 30 mins (normal GRE timing is 45 mins). Consider challenging yourself similarly too.

5. Prepare your statement

This is probably the most difficult part of the graduate school application: it involves a lot of time, thinking, reviews and feedback.

Read the statement guidelines for your school and follow them to the letter. Some schools ask for specific information, make sure you provide all these. Talk about your research plans and aspirations, why you are a good fit and show that you’ve done your homework.

Get many reviewers to go through your essay, they’ll see things that you don’t see and should offer great feedback. It’ll be great to get in touch with people studying at your prospective school and discuss with them too, maybe they’ll even help review your SOP; after all, they are students in that school and must have written a statement too.

Summary: Read it, find flaws, rewrite it and when you think it’s perfect, repeat the process again. When you think you can’t flaw it in any way (and have probably annoyed all your reviewers with your incessant appeals), then and only then you can start to think of  submitting it.


6. Pray to Allaah

I’m a Muslim and I think this is the most important aspect of it – I prayed a lot and Alhamdulilah I got admitted to MASDAR. It is the right thing to do, it strengthens you and helps you to cope with disappointments (and yes they do happen). So do your best, pray to Allaah and hope in Him.

I quite forgot to mention doing istikharah; this is a necessary step when you make decisions – choosing to go to grad school, selecting institutions etc.

And that’s all, share with people who are applying to grad school and do feel free to contact me: I’ll be willing to help insha Allaah.

12 thoughts on “Applying to Grad School

  1. Mashallah! Nice one, one piece of advice I would give is, research your prospective dept as well. A school might have a good general rating but might not be strong in a specific dept.


  2. 2nd to the last paragraph, when you are to make decisions. To is missing or reconfigure.

    I also feel a plus many failed to see is to do a good BSC research and work towards publication from their thesis. Because when things are tight this might be your saving grace, after Godly factor (Allah’s Mercy) of course.


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